Turnbull, women and the new paternalism

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks at an International Women’s Day event in Adelaide in 2016.

The fact that Barnaby Joyce has been forced to step down from the leadership of the Nationals is a good thing. Not so good was Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's reframing of the former deputy PM's wrongdoings in terms of a paternalistic, sexual moralism.

Rather than address Joyce’s abuse of parliamentary privilege to ensure his partner maintained her well-paid media advisor job and questions over Joyce’s expenditure claims for travel and accommodation, Turnbull decided to play the moral card.

Turnbull’s February 15 statement called on Joyce to step down and announced that sex between ministers and their staffers would now be outlawed under changes to the Ministerial Standards. He said the “real issue” was about protecting women because Joyce had demonstrated a “shocking error of judgment” in having an affair with a staff member, now pregnant with their child.

“I recognise that respect in workplaces is not entirely a gender issue, but the truth is, as we know, most of the ministers, most of the bosses in this building if you like, are men. And there is a gender, a real gender perspective, here,” Turnbull said.

This intervention immediately reframed the discussion about why Joyce should step down from one about corruption and rorting of the public purse, to one about having had an affair.

It is a fact that most people are increasingly repulsed by politicians, whatever they do. This made Turnbull’s reframing easier.

Framing this issue as primarily one about sex between two people, consensual in this case, and not around rorting the system for individual gain is a lot more saleable in this age of 24-hour media sensationalism.

Turnbull would have been aware of the US House of Representatives’ decision in early February to ban sex between ministers and their staff. While he initially hesitated at independent MP Cathy McGowan’s suggestion he follow suit, he opportunistically changed his mind.

Turnbull would be keen to distance himself from US President Donald Trump’s particular brand of misogynist, right-wing neoliberalism, but he is clearly not averse to harking back to a previous, moralistic era where woman were seen as the weaker sex, and therefore had to be protected.

Turnbull said he took advice from his wife, and his rationale was this: “Here in this place [parliament], we have such important responsibilities and we don’t, in practical terms have the privacy that many others do. We have to acknowledge that we must have a higher standard. And so henceforth, that is why I am making this change [to ban sex between ministers and their staffers].”

Turnbull claims he is making a stand for women, but he and his government are not pro-woman.

A pro-woman government would not be attacking the welfare state, reducing many women to poverty.

It would mandate equal pay — punishing those companies that do not award equal pay for equal work.

It would not be cutting funding to frontline services to assist women escaping domestic and family violence.

It would take childcare out of the for-profit sector and make it really accessible for working women.

Turnbull seized on the image of a pregnant Vikki Campion, Joyce’s partner, splashed across the front page of the Daily Telegraph in early February, to turn the discourse to the protection of women — hardly an issue in this particular case, but a useful ideological device to nudge the clock back on women being autonomous sexual beings.

Several commentators have noted Turnbull’s calculated morphing of the Liberals from being a party of privacy to one of morality and conservative “family values”. It has served to distract from the public interest issues including: jobs for the lover; the rent-free apartment; and the thousands spent in travel expenses for “work”.

On February 26, the Prime Minister's department quietly dropped the investigation into whether Joyce had breached any ministerial standards.

Trying to regulate human sexuality is fraught, as the Guardian's Katharine Murphy noted. And in a sexist patriarchal world, women will always be the ones whose rights are restricted.

Any attempt to “protect” women, as Turnbull put it, harks back to the 1950s, before the second wave of the women’s liberation movement won ground in changing attitudes to women's rights, their sexuality, desires and dreams.

Author and feminist activist Lynne Segall described the mood among women's liberation groups in Britain in 1969 like this: “Women wanted to talk about sexuality, but in all the ways missing from men's talk: the embarrassment and anxiety surrounding our bodies, issues of fertility and our right to choose when and if to have children; our dislike of the pin-ups saturating the alternative press; men's fear of women's independence, especially our sexual autonomy; problems surrounding housework and childcare; fear of men's potential violence and coerciveness. This was the mood…”

Indian socialist feminist Kavita Krishnan has explained how conservative sexual moral codes have long been used to keep women subjugated.

“The institution of family and marriage comes into being, not so much as an institution based on human love and caring, but as a way of controlling women’s sexuality to ensure inheritance down the male line of ‘legitimate’ heirs.

“As a result, most societies are marked not just by an obsession about control of women’s sexuality but also by the fear of ‘uncontrolled’ sexuality of women.”

“Women are basically seen as breeding machines — whose role of giving birth and mothering is highlighted as much as their sexual desires are suppressed and covered up…

“Issues of women’s sexuality are therefore not merely ‘cultural’ matters which have nothing to do with questions of production — rather, they are closely linked to women’s enforced role in sustaining class society.”

An important gain of the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s was the introduction of anti-discrimination laws in Australia, including laws against sexual harassment in the workplace. We need the law to be taken seriously, and enforced.

Women don't need a return to paternalistic, sexual moralism. We need real economic and social equality.

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